Serbia vaccinates migrants amid surge in COVID-19 cases

KRNJACA, Serbia — Bashir Ahmad Shirzay lived through wars in Afghanistan, survived a harrowing journey to reach Europe and has no intention of taking a gamble with the coronavirus.

He was among the first to roll up his sleeve for a COVID-19 shot on Friday as Serbia became the first European country to vaccinate people living in its refugee camps and asylum centers, according to United Nations officials.

”We should take the vaccine for our health,” Shirzay said. “The virus takes a lot of lives.”

Some 530 migrants and asylum-seekers across Serbia have signed up to get vaccinated. The first recipients had their initial jabs of the AstraZeneca vaccine Friday at a drab camp on the outskirts of the Serbian capital, Belgrade.

“Today is a very, very special day because we have vaccination of refugees and asylum-seekers in the centers,” Francesca Bonelli, a U.N. refugee agency representative in Serbia, said. “It is really an important sign of support that Serbia provides to refugees, and it is a very good example of inclusion of refugees in Serbian society.”

Thousands of refugees and economic migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia are stuck in Serbia and neighboring Bosnia while awaiting opportunities to cross a border into European Union member Croatia and continue on to wealthier Western nations.

Serbia has administered the most coronavirus shots per capita of any country in Europe, a distinction it holds in part because the government worked to secure vaccine supplies from Russia and China. But the Balkan country, like the rest of central and eastern Europe, is facing another onslaught of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Migrants, many of whom live out in the open or under conditions at camps where the virus is easily spread, are considered one of the most vulnerable risk groups in the pandemic. A camp in neighboring Bosnia experienced a major outbreak this month.

“Vaccination is really important because they are living in the collective centers and keeping the physical distancing is very hard and very difficult to truly control the outbreak, so this is really a great opportunity for the migrant population to receive this vaccination,” Abebayehu Assefa Mengistu, a World Health Organization representative in Serbia, said.

AP writer Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade contributed.

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